A comparative study of the simultaneous late-19th-century rises of iconic gunfighters Billy the Kid (1859-1881) and Ned Kelly (1854-1880).
The author of biographies of legendary Indian chief Geronimo as well as Billy the Kid, former National Park Service chief historian Utley (Lone Star Lawmen: The Second Century of the Texas Rangers, 2007, etc.) here traces the similarities between the two from their earliest auspicious criminal beginnings to their respective violent demises. The author also gives insight into the legends surrounding both men, which continue to endure in the pages of popular history. Though the narrative is supposed to be a close comparison of these two violent-minded bushwhackers—with Kelly rising to infamy in the Australian Outback and Billy making his bloody mark in the American Southwest—Utley devotes the first half of the book to Billy and the second to Kelly, with only a brief concluding chapter juxtaposing the two outlaws’ lives and noting their major similarities and differences. The section on Billy paints a scenario of the hyperviolent Old West that bursts with plenty of visceral, cinematic action. We get a keen sense of both outlaws’ lives on the run and how both seemed to cheat death to the point where they seemed infallible. Of course, Billy would end up shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett. As for Kelly, even the oddball use of body armor couldn’t stop him from being apprehended—authorities peppered his legs with buckshot and brought him down—and he was eventually sentenced to hang. Utley is a fine historian and decent writer, but the narrative is too straightforward and bland when delineating the afterlives of both subjects, with a rote listing of all the various (and often kitschy) roles these two popular criminals still play in contemporary popular culture.
A rollicking but thin nonfictional rendering of two of history’s most mythologized outlaws.